Crossing Central Africa by Train on the Transgabonaise

Nov 12, 2020

‘These eclairs are fresh?’ I ask in faltering French, pointing at the meal-sized pastries bulging with piped cream and topped with a thick coating of chocolate. ‘Of course, sir!’ comes the reply from the patient proprietor. An odd question to ask, perhaps, but then I hadn’t expected to stumble upon a Parisian-style patisserie on the Atlantic coast of Central Africa. Often claimed by guides to be more French than France itself, Gabon still maintains tight links with its former colonial ruler with many of its cultural aspects - from its main language of business to its cuisine - stemming from that relationship. One obvious exception is the Transgabonaise, or trans-Gabon railway, which dates to the years after the country’s independence in the 1960s. Stretching for 670 km across Gabon, it was the largest building site in the world at the time of its construction and came close to bankrupting the country.

Gabon, a country I am not afraid to admit I knew almost nothing about prior to visiting, is one of Africa's lesser known success stories. Straddling the equator on its western coast, Gabon is one of the most stable countries on the continent. Abundant petroleum and manganese reserves and stable institutions have seen an influx of foreign capital, and Gabon now boasts Africa's fourth highest GPD per capita. In the 1990's a new constitution allowing for multi-party democracy was adopted. At least some of the country's resource income was spent building infrastructure (including quite elaborate stadiums), expanding health care and education and improving the lives of the Gabonese people, which has seen Gabon climb to boast a UN Human Development Index score similar to that of Indonesia and significantly higher than its neighbours.

In Africa, no nation can be simply categorised as a success or not. Whilst on paper Gabon preforms well, there remain issues. Whilst a new democratic constitution was adopted in 1995, elections have been maligned by accusations of voter fraud, by opposition party boycotts and more recently by violence. A referendum in 2003 removed term limits and prescribed Omar Bongo, a veteran of almost 40 years at the time, the presidency for life. When Bongo passed away in 2009, his son Ali Bongo Ondimba was elected. Ondimba was re-elected in August 2016 in elections marred by irregularities, arrests, human rights violations and post-election violence. Gabon's relationship with France has deteriorated significantly following a French led corruption investigation into the Bongo families assets. After Ondimba was rumoured to have suffered a stroke in 2018 the Military staged a coup. While Gabon’s GPD has benefited greatly from its oil and manganese reserves, in 2019 Gabon’s unemployment rate was estimated to be over 20%, one of the highest in the world. According to the World Inequality Database in 2019 Gabon's top 10% account for over 40% of the national income, whilst the bottom 50% account for only 15%. Gabon is a success story - it is safe and, compared to its neighbours prosperous - but there is still room to grow.